My Tribute by Marcia Clarke PhD

This article is a tribute to the hundreds of unnamed women of Caribbean descent who, under harsh societal conditions, planted and nurtured Pentecostal churches in the UK. With only the seeds and seedlings of Pentecostalism acquired in the Caribbean, a few men and women started a movement.[1] The movement’s pioneers included the New Testament Church of God, Church of God of Prophecy, New Testament Assembly and Apostolic Faith, to name a few. While we tend to bask in the accomplishments of the Black American church, we overlook our own accomplishments. In comparison we deem them at best second rate and at worse of no real consequence.

The Empire Windrush docked in 1948 with only one female – a stowaway. We can only wonder what life was like for her in those early days. From 1947 onwards, the number of women in the country increased and, by 1961, there were more women in the church than men. Far away from her Caribbean church, family and friends, and hostilely received by many British, the women formed informal social groups in homes. Their homes functioned as hair salons, or as a hub for the ‘pardner’ system, which was often the only way to get a lump sum for a down payment on a house, or air tickets for dependent relatives. These groups were also spiritual buttresses; as a source of social sustenance and support, they provided a home away from home. From such groups, self-organised fellowships developed that would later become Black Majority Churches – an umbrella term under which the above-mentioned churches fall. Other women remained committed to the historic Christian denominations of which they had been members in the Caribbean.

As a third-generation Pentecostal female of Jamaican descent, I recognise a need to explore, articulate and document – from the perspective of an insider – the centrality of Pentecostalism to thousands of Black women in the UK*. From a child to early adulthood, my ‘spirituality’ was developed under the care and supervision of the mothers of New Testament Church of God (NTCG). The mothers were born in the Caribbean, and had migrated to England primarily to pursue better opportunities than they had ‘back home’. The mothers encouraged the young and not-so-young to pray, to read the Bible and to attend church services. They nominated individuals for positions on the Family Training Hour committee, youth board and evangelism board. They suggested individuals as speakers, singers or secretaries for a convention or local church service. They were the convention kitchen overseers. In the kitchen, the mothers would sweat, work, laugh, tell stories and occasionally gently chide young women for not cutting the cabbage in the right way; young women quickly learned who was in control! However, these relationships were not about power but helped convey through these activities the fundamentals of faith, culture, tradition, language and folklore, whilst delineating and reinforcing moral values and standards.

During the formative years of the fellowships, although males were the official leaders, it was women – mostly due to their number and commitment – who built and maintained the infrastructure of the Pentecostal church. As well as giving financially, they were responsible for the teaching and organisation of Sunday School – which was not just for children – of nurseries, and of day centres for the elderly and supplementary schools. [2]They did the paperwork, administration, organisation and catering for meetings and conventions. Women were often exhorters and evangelists and in those roles would lead worship. Women encouraged and prompted deeper worship and praise amongst the believers.[3] In the early years of the NTCG, the women’s ministries were very evangelistic and as such enabled the church to grow. The women visited the sick and supported those in need, including missionaries in Africa and ministers in newly formed churches whose congregations were not in a position to support them financially.[4]

Despite their own personal, economic and discriminatory struggles, they shared their difficulties after the fact. Through public and private testimonies, these women shared their lived experience of God’s provision of money, food and employment for them and for their families. In my study I listened to women as they shared their stories of victory over depression, overcoming the grief of divorce, and dealing with racism and discrimination herein Pentecostal spirituality seemed almost tangible. It was, to their mind, that which made them qualitatively better people.

The experiences mentioned above and, more specifically, these women greatly impacted my view of the Pentecostal church and my formation as an adherent. However, despite the important contributions made by women to individual lives, religious movements in general and Pentecostalism in particular, they tend to be overlooked and under-researched by academia and sidelined by popular culture.

Valentina Alexander exhorts that central to the Black woman’s character is her experience, and for nearly fifty percent of Black women in Britain, Pentecostal experience informs and shapes her character. These are among the strongest of Africa’s daughters who, with creativity and ingenuity, kept their heart, mind and soul together along with that of their families – often alone but, through faith, endured to change the religious landscape of the UK. It is to these women I pay tribute.

[1] The term Pentecostal designates a variety of Christian groups, as well as a variety of Christian expressions and manifestations, particularly glossolalia and healing, but the churches referenced in this study are traditionally categorised as ‘classical’ Pentecostals, a term which is associated with ‘denominations that have codified beliefs through statements of faith and specific doctrines’. These churches trace their doctrinal origins back to Wesleyan and Holiness traditions.

[2] See note 255, in which the term Black Majority Church as explained ‘Pentecostal’ is used here to identify the church more specifically.

[3] Valentina Alexander, ‘A Mouse in a Jungle’, 49.

[4] Oliver Lyseight, Forward March (An Autobiography), 56.

 

Born in Nottingham, England, to Jamaican parents, Marcia Clarke PhD, is co-pastor of Restoration Christian Fellowship and an Assistant Director at Regent University.

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